Censorship in a Slingshot
TMS PEACE JOURNALISM, 7 Jun 2010
Israel’s attacks on humanitarian workers heading for Gaza have been called piracy, murder, ‘state terrorism’, even an act of war against the countries whose flags the boats were flying. On the other side has been a massive and cynical campaign of misinformation and misdirection, aimed at muddying the waters and deflecting responsibility.
This has, in turn, built upon foundations that are reinforced daily by a myriad of statements and evasions, calculations and judgments, in political and media discourses around the world. Behind all these is the power of patronage from Washington, which keeps the simple facts of the conflict from being properly appreciated.
One typical episode occurred recently at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “By pushing the boundaries, the ABC stimulates and develops creative new content… which [may] challenge some community sensibilities but also contributes to the diversity of content in the media”. So say the ABC Editorial Policies, last revised in 2009. A previous version was pithier: the corporation “seeks to be a pace-setter in community discussion… impartiality should not mean endorsing the status quo”.
But long years of political interference and intimidation have inculcated in ABC executives a survival instinct, that views such provisions as a labyrinth of hidey-holes, a refuge from inconvenient calls to live up to their principles.
The latest dash for cover was prompted by a documentary, Hope in a Slingshot, by a young Australian film-maker, Inka Stafrace. It showcases grassroots peace initiatives, and the perspectives of human rights campaigners, in the Israel-Palestine conflict, including Palestinians, Israelis and internationals. There are some memorable sequences, especially when the camera follows activists as they defend Palestinian farmers against armed Jewish settlers from one of Israel’s illegal colonies in the occupied West Bank.
I know this because I have watched the film, on a DVD supplied by Inka herself. It has also been shown to small audiences in a few public screenings, but I believe it is worthy of wider attention. Others agree: the rights were acquired by a production company, Ronin Films, and offered to the ABC. The corporation made a formal offer to buy it and screen it, but that was then abruptly withdrawn, following a personal intervention by the Head of Television, Kim Dalton.
Hope in a Slingshot is “an opinion program”, Dalton wrote, in a letter to Ronin’s director, Andrew Pike, about a “contentious” subject. For the ABC to air it would incur an obligation, as required by Clause 6.6.3 of the Editorial Policies, to broadcast another program to “balance” it. Because producers had “not been able to access content which would put an alternative view”, Dalton continued, the plan to run Inka’s film would have to be scrapped. As Greens Senator Scott Ludlam pointed out, that seems to require a pro-war program to be broadcast to balance one in favour of peace.
Dalton’s attitude is tediously familiar to those of us who have tried to invoke the ABC’s public service obligations to get fairer coverage of other issues. Clause 5.2.2 (e) states: “Balance will be sought [and] achieved as soon as reasonably practicable and in an appropriate manner… As far as possible, present principal relevant views on matters of importance”.
That should mean the widespread opposition among Australians, revealed by several opinion polls over recent years, that we should stop fighting the war in Afghanistan and pull our troops out, is regularly aired – not uncritically, of course, but heard and tested. And it should mean the majority of Australians who – according to a poll last year by the Australian National University – now oppose further rises in ‘defence’ spending, also get a chance to put their case.
Apparently not: my complaint – using the corporation’s formal procedures – that these views were conspicuous, in ABC output, by their absence, was rejected. Executives have equipped themselves, on the quiet, with a sneaky little device to exempt them from having to abide by these undertakings: a statement of so-called “news values”, drawn up by a management committee in 2008. They include:
- “Prominence: Status, power of the information source, or of the individuals or institutions involved in the event;
- Personification: Involvement of famous people even when what happens to them is commonplace”.
The Leader of the Opposition, for instance, is of equal news value to the Prime Minister, so when they disagree, the differing views must be reported. When they agree, as on the issues mentioned here, then no such obligation exists – unless an exponent for the countervailing opinion can be found, of comparable fame, status and power. The cosy bipartisan consensus of front-bench politics, over the ‘security’ agenda, is safely insulated from having to justify itself against other views.
So it has been with Australia’s generally one-sided approach, under governments of both parties, to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Hope in a Slingshot shows the consequences, for Palestinians, of living under Israel’s illegal military occupation of their territory: a simple phrase, and one whose every word is in keeping with international law, but one you are very unlikely to hear in Australian broadcast news. Over at SBS, an internal memo last year tried to forbid reporters from even using the words, “Palestinian land”.
This, in fact, is precisely why broadcasters need something like Inka’s film, because it explores aspects of the conflict that are vital to understanding day-to-day developments, but usually ignored in official political exchanges. The occasional backbencher who raises them tends to get shouted down and hounded out, as Julia Irwin, a Labor MP for an electorate in western Sydney, who is retiring at the next election, could tell you. Her brave advocacy won her nothing but trouble in the party, despite widespread admiration in the community at large.
The ABC censorship is just one of several sinister recent developments. Another is the emergence of a group of academics, led by the Monash Social Work lecturer, Philip Mendes, who criticise what they call a “fanatical form of pro-Palestinian orthodoxy” on the university Left in Australia. The not-so-hidden agenda is to demonise advocates of human rights and international law, as the prism through which the conflict should be seen, as racist – the favoured euphemism is “stereotyping” – because they are unwilling to go along with Israeli (and, behind that, US) exceptionalism.
Significant iterations of this campaign include a tendentious scholarly article, smearing the journalism of John Pilger, and a recent contribution to the Australian website of the B’nai B’rith ‘Anti-Defamation Commission’, in which Mendes accuses advocates of a cultural and academic boycott of Israel of “essentialising” all Israeli Jews as being “racist oppressors of the Palestinians”. In fact, the originators of the boycott call go out of their way to distinguish between individual Israelis and the institutional links that are the campaign’s real target: but Mendes is less interested in considering evidence than in assigning labels. The group seems to have ready access to the Australian newspaper, in whose opinion columns Mendes has accused boycott supporters of belonging to the “loony Left”.
To imply that purveying heterodox opinions is a sign of insanity is a well-worn ploy of authoritarian regimes. Such tactics are a menace to community discussion because they narrow the borders of what the media researcher, Daniel Hallin, called “legitimate controversy”. The phrase arises from his study of US media coverage of the Vietnam war: routinely presented, at the time, as vital to America’s interests, but viewed in retrospect as a massive waste of life and resources, and a violation of international and humanitarian law.
Happily, such transitions may now proceed more quickly, thanks to the profusion of independent media – such as TMS. By gaining access to perspectives and versions of events routinely excluded from the ‘mainstream’, we can see round the sides of self-serving agendas of power, despite the efforts of thought police like Dalton and Mendes. And you can see Hope in a Slingshot for yourself – on Saturday, July 10th at the conference of the International Peace Research Association, which we are hosting at the University of Sydney.
Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney and organizer of the IPRA (International Peace Research Association) conference www.iprasydney2010.org.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Jun 2010.
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